By JEREMY W. PETERS and MAGGIE HABERMAN
NOV. 29, 2016
WASHINGTON — She is a woman and an immigrant, a fixture of the Republican establishment for two decades. She is a savvy and professional practitioner of the capital’s inside game. And now she is going to work for President Elect Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump named Elaine L. Chao on Tuesday as his choice to be the next secretary of transportation, elevating someone whose background and experience are in many respects completely at odds with the brash and disruptive tenor of his anti Washington campaign.
But her selection also signaled Mr. Trump’s understanding of the need to surround himself with people who can help him accomplish the most ambitious parts of his agenda, even if they come from the political establishment he has so often scorned.
His transportation secretary is likely to be one of the more essential players. Mr. Trump, a real estate magnate, has said that infrastructure redevelopment will be a priority of his first 100 days in office. And Ms. Chao has experience — politically and personally — in navigating the competing centers of power in the capital. She is married to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.
This will be her second time serving in a White House cabinet if she is confirmed. As secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, she was the only official in his administration to serve all eight years.
Before that, she worked in various departments across the federal government. She was a White House fellow under President Ronald Reagan and the director of the Peace Corps under President George Bush, who also named her deputy transportation secretary.
“That says something,” said Richard F. Hohlt, a veteran Republican consultant and friend of Ms. Chao’s. “She knows how to work a bureaucracy, and she knows how to last.”
Her résumé speaks to the ease with which she runs in powerful circles in Washington and beyond. She has worked for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as well as the conservative Heritage Foundation. She was also a frequent commentator on Fox News, a role that several of Mr. Trump’s other cabinet picks and candidates share, like K. T. McFarland, whom he named as his deputy national security adviser.
That is not her only connection to the world of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation includes Fox. She sits on the company’s board of directors. She adds some diversity to a cabinet that is so far heavily older, white and male. Ms. Chao, 63, was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States with her family when she was 8.
While the public aspects of her life are well known, Ms. Chao has also played an integral, behind the scenes role in her husband’s political career, most recently as he fought off efforts to unseat him in 2014. Described by friends and colleagues as unrelenting, she occasionally stepped out into the public eye to take on her husband’s antagonists.
Sometimes they also came for her, and she was happy to take them on as well. After a liberal Kentucky group suggested in 2013 that Ms. Chao was somehow connected to the flight of American jobs to China — a jab evidently intended to portray Mr. McConnell as too cozy with American business interests — she starred in a commercial and rushed to his defense. “Far Left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch’s patriotism, because he’s married to me,” she said. “That’s how low some people will stoop.”
Mr. Trump was impressed by her energy and drive, a senior transition official said, speaking anonymously to reveal the private interactions between Ms. Chao and the president elect. He also admired her no nonsense attitude, this official said.
But now that she is in line for a prominent position in Mr. Trump’s cabinet, it is her own ties to business that are likely to come under scrutiny. As labor secretary, she faced criticism that her department favored business and was lax on enforcement and worker safety.
At the time, she dismissed those concerns as “partisan.”
Her time out of government service is likely to be the biggest area of focus for labor and other left leaning interests, though her confirmation in the Senate does not appear to be in any doubt. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, praised her government service on Tuesday, and said he hoped to work collaboratively with her and Mr. Trump on an infrastructure plan, which would have to make it through the Senate her husband leads.
“I hope Secretary Chao shares that ambitious goal and is willing to work with Democrats,” Mr. Schumer said.
A particular area of interest for her critics will be her position on the board of Wells Fargo, which has been tainted by revelations that its managers tolerated and even encouraged its employees
to sign customers up for services they did not want.
But other private sector work could prove to be an asset. She was a banker for Citicorp and helped close transactions that involved transportation financing. The financing issue she will confront now is altogether different, however. Despite the consensus that the nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of an overhaul, Congress and the White House have been unable to agree on how to pay for it.
“That’s where the creative thinking takes place,” said Ray LaHood, who served as transportation secretary under President Obama. He also worked with Ms. Chao when he served in Congress and she was labor secretary. Given her understanding of the complexities of the private sector and the dysfunction of Washington, Mr. LaHood added, Ms. Chao was a strong candidate.
“I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in a long time about the potential she brings to finally get something done on infrastructure,” he said.